anotherlongshot (anotherlongshot) wrote,

What Is Democracy?

I once asked G whether he'd ever return to Greece to work and live. He said that it was very unlikely because he felt no sync with Greek society for a host of reasons.

This language of being in sync brilliantly describes how I feel right now in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election. Singapore and I are out of sync. It is even plausible that we were never in sync in the first place. We seem to have fundamentally different values; we seem to want and expect different things from the government. The overwhelming majority of Singaporeans seem to think that democracy only means getting a vote; they don't seem to care that a dominant-party style of government poses significant risks to transparency and accountability because it pretty much gets to do whatever it wants; they don't seem to be concerned at all about the state of press freedom in this country; they don't care about their lack of human rights; they don't care about the plight of the poor and the elderly; and that leaves me wondering what do they care about? Their houses, their jobs, a stable country, clean and crime-free streets? That's all well and good, and I'm all for that, but 1) at what price, and 2) then what?

This result has taken us back at least a decade. The last election was seen as a watershed because the PAP received its lowest vote share since 1959, i.e. 60.1% of the votes. Last night, they received close to 70%. I cannot comprehend this. I cannot comprehend the mentality that one possesses to keep voting for a party that runs the country efficiently but governs with no discernible value apart from pragmatism. I cannot comprehend this mindset that thinks it okay to have a dominant party style of government. I cannot comprehend how Singaporeans are okay with the Prime Minister earning 3 million dollars a year (seriously, have these Ministers no shame?). I cannot comprehend this resistance to change - and we're not even talking about another party being in charge, but simply having more opposition voices in Parliament. That is how pathetic democracy is in this country.

Democracy is about more than just voting. Getting a vote perhaps provides a semblance to a thin conception of democracy, but please do not delude yourself into thinking it means anything more than that. I can't even be arsed to qualify my opinions with reference to my liberalism, because one does not need to be a liberal to understand the basic mutually-supportive relationship between a free press and democracy, free speech and democracy, fundamental liberties and democracy. Stop telling me these are Western ideas or that I am Westernised; voting is also a Western construct so why are we doing it if everything that is 'Western' is automatically bad?

I seem to be living in a country paralysed by Stockholm syndrome, full of supposedly educated people but who do not seem to possess critical thinking skills. This isn't even a matter of reasonable disagreement between reasonable people. There can be no true reasonable disagreement if we are not arguing from the same baseline, and we cannot be arguing from the same baseline if we do not have free and open access to all the relevant information, not simply the information that the government sanctions; and neither can we be arguing from the same baseline if we don't seem to be working from the same theory of what democracy is. It goes beyond a mere counting of hands. It is not just about getting a vote; at the same time, this vote is also critically important because it is a loaded concept. What are we doing when we vote for a particular political party? What does it mean to choose your own government?

I'm no expert in democratic theories (talk to me about human rights theories please) but it seems to me that this choice is also consent to the government exercising legitimate, coercive authority over you. You consent to the government telling you what to do. This means that you agree with its policies and laws; it means that you sanction its ideology; it means that you do not believe in the things that the government does not believe in. But what does it really mean to exercise a choice in who governs you? What is so wrong with authoritarianism or a dictatorship? Why does it matter that we have a choice?

It seems to me that it matters because we are autonomous individuals with inherent dignity. Being told what to do against our will violates our dignity and disrespects our autonomy. This, to me, is what is fundamentally attractive about democracy, and why the vote is critical; and it also goes to the idea of having a choice and, accordingly, of freedom. There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between democracy and freedom. Singaporeans who think that freedom of speech and the press doesn't matter (which is the view that they endorse by voting for the PAP) have a basic and fundamental misconception of democracy. You cannot have true democracy - the meaningful kind - without freedom of speech and the press. The media point is fairly obvious: you can't make a meaningful choice of who to vote for if your access to information is restricted by one party who distorts the other party to the former's unfair advantage. As for freedom of speech, Dworkin's argument (which I think is the right one) that free speech is a condition of legitimate government goes like this. It is only when citizens get equal opportunities to air their views on a particular proposed law or policy that the losers in the debate would accept the outcome.

Okay, I just did absolutely no justice to his argument, and so I will copy and paste the relevant paragraphs from his article 'The Right to Ridicule':

Freedom of speech is not just a special and distinctive emblem of Western culture that might be generously abridged or qualified as a measure of respect for other cultures that reject it, the way a crescent or menorah might be added to a Christian religious display. Free speech is a condition of legitimate government. Laws and policies are not legitimate unless they have been adopted through a democratic process, and a process is not democratic if government has prevented anyone from expressing his convictions about what those laws and policies should be.


So in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial and ethnic fairness. If weak or unpopular minorities wish to be protected from economic or legal discrimination by law—if they wish laws enacted that prohibit discrimination against them in employment, for instance—then they must be willing to tolerate whatever insults or ridicule people who oppose such legislation wish to offer to their fellow voters, because only a community that permits such insult as part of public debate may legitimately adopt such laws. If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to accept. Whatever multiculturalism means—whatever it means to call for increased “respect” for all citizens and groups—these virtues would be self-defeating if they were thought to justify official censorship.


I apologise for this cop-out, but I am sick of this entry and I am now more interested in working on my abs and burning calories, so I will end off with this: contrary to what the PAP appears to believe, fundamental liberties are neither Western nor a luxury.

I am so glad to be heading to the UK at the end of the month.
Tags: general election, general election 2015, human rights, politics, ronald dworkin, singapore

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